All this talk about banquets and feasts in our gospel lesson reminds me of Thanksgiving Day in my house when I was growing up. I will always remember getting out of bed at some godawful hour to assist my mother - who had been up all night - with preparing the table to her meticulous instructions. The china, used mostly just for this occasion, had to be placed at each seat in a precise location. The silver, gleaming even from my brothers efforts, placed in rank like a military presentation flanking each setting. The water glasses sparkled and stood at attention, waiting for to be filled with ice.
For my mother, a single mom with a far-flung family, Thanksgiving was her one day for extravagance and for celebration, present in the midst of hardship and struggle, in both quantity of food she made and in the beauty of the table she prepared.
So much we do centers on food. Business deals are seal with lunch. Weddings are usually followed by a reception. Friendships are forged and cemented around pizzas or ice cream. What’s a birthday without a party, with a cake or something similar? Funerals and wakes traditionally are followed by a repast. Even here at church, Coffee Hour is actually an extension, a sealing of our commitment to service and care of each other and our community.
In the Gospel of Luke, meals provide central settings for Jesus’ teachings. the language of food, in general, serves as a focal point for Jesus’ parables (cf. 11:5-8; 15:14-17, 23; 12:16-21, 45; 17:7-10 and celebration (cf. 15:23) like the parable of prodigal son. Food has religious connotations for example talk about the feast at the end of the days -- (cf. 6:1-4; 7:33; 14:15; 22:14-20); Jesus “blesses” meals (cf. 9:16; 22:19; 24:30) and prays for it daily (cf. 11:3) in the Lord’s Prayer. Among his most famous miracles are the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, when he fed the crowds as reported in the gospels of Mark and Matthew.
Jesus spends much of his time eating and drinking with people – that he was called by the religious leaders a drunkard and glutton a friend of tax collectors and sinners (7:34). One of his first miracles was the multiplication of wine at the wedding feast in Cana that we hear of in John’s gospel. Then last night before his death Jesus spent at meal with his closest disciples and giving us the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to remember him by and be nourished in our faith. Jesus wants to feed us in body, mind and spirit.
As our gospel text reveals, it was a custom to invite people for a meal on the Sabbath after the worship service. The meal in our story is attended by leaders and doctors of the Law. At this Sabbath meal Jesus happened to be among the invited guests.
Jesus begins his teaching by healing a man of dropsy (or edema, a swelling of the limbs due to a buildup of fluids). The leaders were watching closely, as Jesus performed this miracle on the Sabbath. Jesus next began to observe them closely, as people began to scramble for places of honor at the table. The Jewish Scriptures gave some clear rules about seating order, and so the guests were really not speaking out of turn when they were arguing about their rank.
So Jesus’ criticism of other invited guests seems out of place and impolite. They were following tradition, sitting according to rank. It is Jesus who seems to lack table manners. In some Jewish communities, the handicapped are listed among those not allowed in the assembly, alongside with those who are ritually impure, physically ill, paralyzed, lame, blind, deaf, dumb, and those with leprosy.
So rules of table etiquette have endured down the centuries: to preserve the status quo. Or to maintain power. Did you pass the salt and pepper right? Did you use the right utensil, in the right manner? How did you sit? Did you use your napkin properly? Following these rules indicted if you were refined, an insider. Often it turns the banquet from being an inclusive feast, based on heavenly principles, to an exclusive feast where the majority of people are not welcome, considered unrefined, uncouth, not suitable for decent society.
This played out even on my family’s Thanksgiving Day. I remember us children when young, were relegated to the folding table off to the side, because there wasn’t enough room at the main table. It was a big deal to finally move up to the main table. And as any psychologist worth their salt will tell you, placement is key. It tells you the pecking order of community.
Even though Jesus shared several meals with Pharisees (cf. 7:36), they often complained about his choice of (other) table-fellowship companions (cf. 5:30) and about how his associates secured food on the Sabbath (cf. 6:1-4). Jesus loved food (cf. 7:33) and his disciples followed suit (cf. 5:33). So it is at this banquet that Jesus teaches us what table manners. It has nothing to do with where you are at the table. It’s where you are at in your heart. What is the banquet God loves? In our passage today, Jesus upends the rules of social etiquette - he reverses our table manners. When we go to a wedding banquet we are not to sit at the seats of highest honor, but take the lowest place. Jesus says we are to humble ourselves. When we give a party, Jesus says we are to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, who cannot repay. Because that’s what God’s banquet looks like. All are invited. And none of us can repay the blessings we receive from God.
Many years ago the Boston Globe told the story of an unusual wedding reception. A woman and her fiancée had arranged to have their wedding reception at the Hyatt Hotel in Boston, and the contract came to over $13,000. But on the day the invitations were to go out, the groom got cold feet. When the woman went to the Hyatt to cancel the reception she found that she could not, unless she was willing to forfeit the vast majority of what she had paid.
It turned out that ten years before this same bride had lived in a homeless shelter. She had been fortunate enough to get a good job and get back on her feet. Now she had the idea of using her savings to treat the down and outs of Boston to a night on the town. So the Hyatt Hotel hosted a party such as it had never seen before. She and sent invitations to shelters and rescue missions throughout the city. That summer night, people who were used to eating out of garbage cans dined on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’ouevres to elderly vagrants propped up by crutches and walkers. Bag ladies and drug addicts took a night off from the hard life on the sidewalks outside and sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced to big band melodies late into the night.
For this jilted bride to be, this unusual dinner party turned a negative experience into a positive one. In fact it’s now an example that has been followed by other jilted brides over the years. It sends to us a message: the banquet must go on. Jesus invites us to embrace this humble attitude as a way of life. Table manners concerned with inclusivity and love, an eagerness to serve God, a willingness to serve in Jesus’ name. Jesus says, when you give a banquet, remember him. Remember how Jesus went to banquets and healed. Jesus went to banquets and forgave. He went to the banquets are provided new wine, so the wedding party could celebrate. He went to banquets of sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes as well as renowned Pharisees. Jesus comes to our banquet to celebrate with us.
Remember, Jesus says, every day our table manners. We are called to hospitality not just based in food, but in feeding the world that craves for love, kindness, creating hope and reconciliation. We are the channel by which Jesus reveals the love and salvation of God to the world. It is our task to join each other, join our neighbor wherever they are spiritually or physically hungry. So let us mind our table manners like Jesus did: being humble and open to all around us -- and keep the feast. Amen.